Federal-State Relationship Looks Grim, but Legislators Should Keep Trying

The situation is bad between federal and state governments and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better anytime soon.

The Council of State Governments’ Focus on Federalism Task Force conducted its first meeting Saturday with a hearing focusing on how intergovernmental relations have gotten so bad and what can be done about it. The task force is a two-year effort of CSG.

“State-based innovation, unfortunately, is being impacted increasingly and seriously by a growing web of federal policies and regulations,” said Alaska Sen. Gary Stevens, CSG’s 2013 chair. “Our goal with this initiative is not to advocate for something predetermined. … Instead, we want to CSG to serve as an open forum. It will be member driven. We want to learn from the experts.”

One of the things the members learned is the atmosphere in Washington, D.C., is probably even worse than they thought.

Michael Bird, former senior federal affairs counsel for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the atmosphere in Washington is “poison.”

“Special interest issue and campaign financing are all tied together,” he said. “Even in some offices of members of Congress, … they see you as a special interest, no different than anyone who’s representing the private sector or a moneyed interest of some type. That’s another hurdle that has to be addressed.”

Former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening said Washington must get away from using issues such as immigration and the Affordable Care Act as a wedge to widen the gulf between the parties.

A major area of concern is “the need for a return to a more civil, bipartisan dialogue about how to solve the challenges facing this country,” he said. “We all know the vitriolic rhetoric of the past several years and we anticipate with dread the next set of debates. … It’s clear, however, that it is time for everyone to calm down and focus on doable solutions.”

Former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas said states are struggling with unfunded mandates, maintenance of effort requirements and the movement away from formal the formal rulemaking process at federal agencies—which opened up more debate between federal and state officials—to the more informal agency guidance that doesn’t solicit state input.

“You’ve hit the right issue at the right time, especially when Washington is in gridlock,” Douglas said. “I think action is more important than ever before.

“A few months ago, a bunch of former governors met with colleagues that now are in the U.S. Senate. … I talked to a friend and colleague right after he was elected and said, ‘Don’t drink the Kool-Aid, remember where your roots are.’ ... It’s critically important for NGA, CSG and other organizations of state officials to keep persevering and continue to let the federal government know states are where the action is.”’

Most of the speakers said they weren’t optimistic that the federal-state relationship is going to improve anytime soon, but that state legislators shouldn’t stop trying.

“I’m an optimistic guy and I don’t see things changing in any great way,” Bird said. “I think elected officials have got to demand more from an incoming administration. … You’ve got to ask much more than, ‘Hey, I’d really like to be invited to the White House Christmas party.’

“I think the Big 7 has very low expectations of Washington, D.C., and you need to heighten them. They expect too little of what comes out of any administration or Congress.”